At some point in my career, I promise, I’ll move on from bashing the City of Asheville over its handling of the holiday water outage.
But, happily, that time is not yet here. I was spurred to write about it again this week after receiving an email from Asheville retiree Mary Ann LaMantia asking some pretty great questions.
“John, do you have any idea why the PR and/or information released by the city during the South Asheville water crisis was so evasive, and in several instances, downright wrong?” LaMantia wrote. “A catastrophe can happen anytime/anywhere but, if city officials had been upfront and honest with us as it rolled out the week after Christmas, we would have been singing their praises right now instead of demanding an investigation. Real ‘facts’ are important. Alternate facts only cause chaos.”
If I hadn’t heard similar sentiments from a lot of other residents, I might let this one slide. But really, the communications surrounding the water debacle was a disaster in its own right.
This would be a little more acceptable if the city didn’t have a fairly large, well-paid communications department. By my count, from looking at the city website and employee database, it includes 10 employees, with a total annual payroll of $653,644, including $126,000 for Director of Communication & Public Engagement Dawa Hitch.
The city’s police and fire departments have their own public information officers, by the way, and APD even hires an outside firm for public relations consulting. In short, Asheville spends a lot on communications.
I also get that some of these communications folks are handling online duties, streaming of meetings and other tasks that the public demands in the modern world. But that’s still a lot of simoleons for keeping the public informed.
To be fair, Hitch is a nice person and has been very professional and helpful to me personally in the past when I’ve asked for information. And Kim Miller, the city’s public information officer, who makes $55,128 annually, according to a city database, has tracked down a heroic number of Answer Man questions for me.
But, to put it charitably, the communications department was not firing on all cylinders during the water crisis. Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, Water Resources Director David Melton, and Fire Department Chief Scott Burnette handled most of the podium duties at the press conferences.
And a lot of information coming out was incomplete, confusing, or, on occasion, inaccurate.
Another round of “Water should be restored in 24-48 hours” for anyone?
‘I recognize an obfuscation when I see/hear one’
A lot of customers were unhappy with the communications while the water was out. It turns out a lot of folks aren’t signed up for AVL Alerts, which the city relied heavily on, and water customers resented being told not to wash their cars when thermometer readings were in the single-digits.
By the way, when I asked LaMantia if she minded being quoted, she had one of the best replies I’ve ever read, saying it was interesting I found her quotable.
“I was a top-level bureaucrat with New York State government for many years,” she said. “I wrote a lot of those political non-answers for politicians, so I recognize an obfuscation when I see/hear one.”
For starters, LaMantia was critical of the city for its explanation of how the three water sources the city relies on, as she put it, “weren’t connected and that they couldn’t just turn a valve to share water from the other two with south Asheville.” The city primarily relies on the North Fork reservoir in Black Mountain, but it also uses Bee Tree Reservoir in Swannanoa and the Mills River water facility in northern Henderson County.
The city tried to communicate that the system is complicated, and too much pressure from North Fork could cause problems in the south and west, but yes, the messaging was confusing and took too long to come out in a concise fashion.
LaMantia mentioned several other miscues, including lack of a warning when they first knew the Mills River plant was in trouble, inaccurate estimates on when water would be restored, calls to conserve water without a clear explanation as to how exactly that would help the south, and suggesting the situation was under control and they didn’t need state help when they probably did.
“Frankly, I stopped watching their TV interviews and reading the papers because it hurt to watch them try to convince us that everything would be fine,” LaMantia said.
I’ll add that a lot of folks found the city outage maps late in coming and particularly useless, and information about where to get water confusing. Heck, even a cogent explanation of what actually caused the problem took days to come out.
LaMantia has plenty of company in her exasperation. When I wrote my first column Dec. 30 about the outage, a lot of readers mentioned communications as a particular problem.
“There is a rule in crisis management: Get the most important and useful information out as soon as possible,” Tom Youngblood said.
“Lesley” said, “The city’s water system page on its website is also poorly designed and makes it hard to find notifications about system outages. That is, you have to go looking for them rather than them finding us.”
Martin Dyckman was exasperated with the “boil water advisories.”
“I called the city this morning to say I was tired of hearing boil-water notices on their robocalls because I don’t even have a drop to boil,” he wrote. “Among their many failures to communicate, it took days to acknowledge there might be a problem in West Asheville as well (there sure is). The next time the Republicans in the Legislature make a run at taking Asheville’s system away, I might not be as unsympathetic to them.”
Marilyn Hughes opined, “Yes, communication was disastrous as we have gone through and continue to go through this, creating so much anxiety and despair.”
I suspect they all feel they weren’t exactly getting their communications dollar’s worth.
Timeline seemed a little self-serving
Sure, this occurred over Christmas, and it’s likely some key communications folks were out of town. Maybe some of the graphics team, too.
LaMantia says she’s “not criticizing how they actually handled the catastrophe, because I wasn’t at the table and do not have the info they had as they made decisions.”
A lot of second-guessing has taken place, but considering the outage lasted in places from Christmas through Jan. 4, I think it’s safe to say that mistakes were made. The independent review committee the Asheville City Council appointed supposedly will get to the bottom of all that, although I suspect they’re not going to call folks out by name.
Also, I’ll stress again that everyone appreciates the hard-working crews who actually went out, found all the broken city water lines — all 27 of them — and repaired them. Those workers earned their pay.
But the messaging during all of this was horrible. For instance, Melton and the city said for several days that 11 city water lines broke, but when a timeline finally came out Jan. 10, it said 27 lines broke.
That’s a pretty huge difference.
“What I am frustrated with is how they disseminated information to us,” LaMantia said. “The poor guy in charge of the water department should never have been given the PR lead. Info given to the press should have been handled by the city’s PR department.”
In a previous column, I noted that City Manager Debra Campbell was essentially absent during the crisis, although she did attend press conferences.
“The only thing in this whole mess that gave me a chuckle is that Debra Campbell stayed on vacation and kept away from the podium when she returned,” LaMantia said. “If I had to guess, no one told her about it until it was too late for her to control the message. I may be wrong, but there’s something about that woman that I like.”
That made me chuckle, too. For the record, Campbell said she was impacted by the outage herself, suggesting she was in town, and Manheimer has said Campbell was at all of the city’s press conferences.
Look, even City Council members were frustrated with the communications that came out during and after the crisis. None of them are going to say this on the record, but I suspect nobody feels like taxpayers and water bill payers got their $653,644 worth of useful information.
On Jan. 10, the city released a “Communications Timeline” about the event, and it contains information about dozens and dozens of alerts, notices, social media postings and more. Honestly, to me, it’s a little self-serving and shall I say, “CYA-ish,” as it says nothing of the quality or accuracy of the information going out.
At the Jan. 10 City Council meeting, Mayor Manheimer addressed communications, stating it’s “a great time for us to kind of nail down that internal communication piece.” It’s a long quote but telling:
“But also, you know, it’s a struggle when something happens on a weekend or a holiday or an evening,” Manheimer said. “The other piece, I think, where I’ve noticed we have this conversation and that is a challenge for us is at what point does it trigger an emergency communication effort? Is this an emergency yet? Do we need to have a press conference? Do we need to set up a regular schedule of communication for the next three or four days a week or whatever? And on this one, it seemed like it wasn’t clearly recognized yet that it was going to be a full blown emergency. And it sort of simmered at first.”
Yes, the city missed the boat on communications. And when you’ve got an entire department devoted to the topic, it’s time for some serious self-reflection, and probably an overhaul on how you conduct your operation.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
A friend who was without water during this crisis now reports that her water bill was not adjusted, and I see that mine is higher than usual (I had water). When I looked for usage stats for the past three bills, I had to request them via email. Local governments keep on keepin’ on regarding their lack of transparency. Thanks to John Boyle for keeping his readers in the know so they can stay on top of local government leaders to keep us informed.
Is there a correlation between short term rentals and burst water pipes? Only a truly devoted beer-nut would head for Asheville in January where it is historically a bit nippy and snowlessly unpretty. Hence many vacant Airbnbs. Because there’s nobody there, no water is flowing in the pipes in the streets, giving the static water in the pipes plenty of opportunity to freeze. I rest my case.
Great set of columns. Thanks John. Question for Water Department – since they say there is plenty of excess capacity in system for growth (50% use I think I read) why didn’t they plan on an emergency use of interconnected systems? Oh that’s right – none of the council (or I suspect the water department) live on the south end of town. I moved here 15 years ago and we didn’t have Mills River but all was fine. Time to consider ditching ‘at large’ election of council. We need a representative for the south end of town.
I’m throughly disgusted with the way the incompetent city and county officials handled the water outage crisis between Christmas Eve through the first week and a half of January. Residential pipes, hot water heaters, refrigerator and freezers, faucets plugged with debris are just a few problems when the water was turned back on. The mayor and water coordinator were deceptive and dishonest and not forthcoming in their choice to turn certain populations water off in order to keep their own water on. Bathing in a pot of boiled water got old fast. The city has no business running our water system, nor the county if they can’t insure we all have safe and reliable service. The kicker is citizens were told to run their water until it was clear so many gave even higher bills after being without water for 7-11 days. Voters will not be forgetting this debacle.
All of this! I did not lose water, but I continue to think about the lack of emergency water distribution sites immediately in place. The idea that people had to call and ask for it to be delivered by emergency services personnel seems ludicrous and a waste of resources. What if the fire fighters actually needed to be out doing their jobs? Apparently people who needed water had to prove they could not go get some on their own? And they were expected to pay extra for it? I have lived in places where water sources were “out” and communication immediately came out about where to go to pick up x number of gallons per person at no cost. (And ice if the power was out, too.) I hope some of the people on the committee recommend that such a plan is implemented. I believe some people would have felt less frustrated if they had just been able to pick up some free water somewhere close by!
It’s worth noting that it wasn’t just lack of communication, or miscommunication, but also outright lies.
We had members of Council telling us that the City was saying we couldn’t have outage maps because they would breach customer privacy, and that it was against Homeland Security regulations—both laughable propositions. (I’d like some follow-up to determine just exactly who was floating those excuses.) And in fact they DID publish maps, both as graphics and using GIS, a few days later. (I’ll leave an analysis of the inadequacy of those maps to you, they were—how shall I say—neither very accurate or helpful.)
The point is: the CYA effort was given priority from the get-go, and it did a huge disservice to the residents of Asheville. Governmental communications, especially in a crisis should be prompt, accurate, clear, helpful/actionable, and easily accessible through a variety of media. This was a fail on every count.
Mayor Manheimer: “… it seemed like it wasn’t clearly recognized yet that it was going to be a full blown emergency.” Excuse me, but didn’t the Asheville Water Department make a conscious decision to shut off any alternative water source to South Asheville when they allowed the Mills River station to freeze? That sounds like a full blown emergency to me. In fact, sounds like a full blown lot of other stuff as well.
I live in North Asheville, and I am thankful that we never lost water access completely. However, our water turned brown on Christmas Eve, which was pretty off-putting for visiting family. We do get the Asheville Alerts, but received no notification. My husband called the water department and waited on hold for ~11/2 hours. He finally connected with a poor woman who seemed to be the only person on duty. My husband asked what was going on, and she didn’t know. He asked if we should boil our water, and she said, “I would, if I were you.” Truth be told, nobody wants to drink brown water, even if it’s boiled. My son went out looking for bottled water, but, being Christmas Eve, he struck out. Water still brown Christmas Day, no alerts or other communication. We were forced to drink wine and beer instead. Finally, on Boxing Day, the water cleared. About that time, we started getting ~4 alerts a day, via phone, text, email, etc.
Had to shake my head at the robust communication staff and un-robust communication. And “not sure it was an emergency “ is a head scratcher. BTW the water pipes to the river at the municipal golf course are broken but a breakdown in communications between the city and state leave repairs in limbo.
As a communications professional, I applaud The Asheville Watchdog for this article and agree 100%. The communications were handled so poorly during this crisis that it’s clear there was no well thought out crisis communications plan for such an incident – which is standard practice for any organization and especially so for a public system.
No customer should have to sign up for Asheville Alerts to receive emergency notices of water shortages or boil water advisories. That’s just crazy stupid, laziness or incompetence – take your pick.
With a citizen population skewing as old as Asheville, the City should have automated broadcast telephone alerts for such emergencies. Everyone has a phone — not everyone uses email or texts. In addition, the Water Department’s website needs a complete overhaul – it’s ridiculously impossible to navigate during times of a crisis.
In addition, the boil water advisory maps and verbal boundary descriptions were LAUGHABLY bad. The graphs were very difficult to zoom in and see actual streets. And the verbal descriptions were so cursory that even area life-long residents on my street didn’t know if they were in a boil water advisory when I read Asheville’s description of the boundaries to them. With Asheville having so many newbie residents, the verbal descriptions were about as helpful as no descriptions at all.
As a result, it took 3 college educated, tech savvy people in my house 3 days to figure out that we were actually in a boil advisory area. And, yes, one of got sick because we drank tainted water because of it. Really? All that was needed was the ability to enter our address and a yes or no answer that we are in a boil water advisory area.
The final insult, however, was the chart showing how many social media posts went out, how many times an email was sent, how many press releases were written, etc. How defensive it looked! Rather than measuring output, the city should be looking at how many customers were actually reached. How many people actually opened the emails? How many people actually interacted with their social media posts? I think it’s a fair assumption that only a small fraction of water customers actually were engaged with the communications. When you’re holding people’s lives in your hands, this is unacceptable.
sadly, this grosss mismanagement of the water crisis will be forgotten by ashevillians the next time they vote for the same people over and over again.
Sadly, I’m sure you’re 100% right, Bob.
I am not sure why Dana Bash is getting bashed. This is like killing the messenger. All she can do is put the message she is give out to the public. If apparently is is her job to lie on behalf of a poorly run department, perhaps some folks think her excuses were not good enough. Why do you feel it is so important to put peoples salaries in every article, it is irrelavant to the conversation and looks like jealousy. Perhaps you should report, David Melton, who earns $??? has no clue how to run a water department yet he has worked there x years and is still in charge. Nothing has changed and this will happen again. But we are plotting how to keep an ancient baseball field going, installing a 6 lane track and at last count had so many unicorn projects which total $100 million according to the last report, that not a lot is going to change. In the mean time every fix they do on the water pipes results in a new dent in the road and another pothole to avoid.
We seem to continue to search for who is responsible for various parts of the water outage mess. This story talks about “communication” and how much a communication department gets paid, but the story does not make it clear to me what the communication department is actually responsible for. There seems to be an implication that the communication department is responsible for lame and confusing communication, but isn’t that communication actually originating from others in Asheville/Buncombe government departments? I would appreciate a better explanation of why we should be suspicious about a budget without explaining the full role and responsibility of the department being put in the hot seat. Without that this story seems to tilt towards impatient scapegoating instead of informative investigation. I know Watchdog can do a better job on this.
Great article, John. As usual. Thanks very much.
There’s a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking here from John Boyle right on down. How much complaining would we hear if our local governments were spending millions each year developing turnkey emergency response plans (including communications) to a long list of unlikely but theoretically possible catastrophes? Isn’t that what it would take to avoid the problems raised here?
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